Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Unknown White Male

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A man wakes up from a four day coma to realize his wife no longer knows who he is and his identity may have been erased.
About: Based on the 2003 novel “Out Of My Head” by French author Didier Van Cauwelaert, this Dark Castle Thriller went from the treadmill to the production mill when Liam Neeson signed on to play the lead. Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) is directing. Joel Silver and Leonard Goldberg are producing.
Writers: Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell (revisions by Karl Gadjusek)
Details: 116 pages (dated 2.10.09)

I possess a very particular set of skills...

When I saw Liam Neeson sign on to Unknown White Male, I thought, “yes.” Taken may not have been the deepest pool, but it sure was fun to swim in. And Neeson fit into that role like a well-worn pair of speedos. What did I want to see after Taken? I wanted to see more Neeson kicking ass! I wanted to hear more Neeson talking into phones and telling people that if it’s money they wanted, he didn’t have any. But that he had developed a particular set of skills over the years, skills that have enabled him to find and kill bad men like them. I wanted him to give these men an opportunity to leave his daughter be. But if they didn’t, I wanted him to tell them that he would find them…and he would kill them. On title alone, “Unknown White Male” sounded like the kicking-ass cousin of Taken. Neeson wakes up from a coma and starts beating the shit out people! Right? Right?? At least, that’s how it played out in my head. Is that how it played out in reality?

Well, not exactly. Unknown White Male is more of a mystery than an action flick. Neeson certainly does a lot of running around. But not so much beating up people. Part of the problem is that his phone is broken. Obviously that means he can’t call people and tell them that he will find them and he will kill them. If he had that phone, I’m sure this would be a completely different movie.

Dr. Martin Harris and his wife, Liz, have just arrived in Germany for a bio-tech conference. We learn very little about the two other than that they’re tired and want to check into their hotel. For reasons unexplained, Martin hops into a cab to head back to the airport. In a case of wrong place, wrong time, the young driver, Gina, swerves to avoid an accident and ends up sending them into the river. Gina saves Martin, but runs away before the police arrive.

Four days later Martin wakes up from a coma in the hospital. He’s confused, disoriented, and he’s got a slight case of amnesia. All he cares about is finding his wife though. Against doctor’s orders, Martin hops out of bed and goes back to the hotel. But when he asks hotel security about his wife, about his room, he finds out that “Martin” has already been checked in. He’s supposedly already here. When Martin insists that’s impossible because *he* is Martin, he realizes that he has no way to actually prove it. His wallet was lost in the accident.

Lucky for Martin, a party happens to be going on in the hotel and wouldn’t you know it, there’s his wife! All dressed up right in the middle of it all. Smiling. Laughing.

Wait a minute. What the hell is his wife doing smiling at a party when he’s been missing for four days?? Martin charges into the party and grabs her. He’s here, he tells her. He was in an accident and got sent to the hospital but now he’s okay. Yet his wife just stares back at him, confused. She’s doesn’t seem to know Martin. And if that isn’t bad enough, a man steps up and takes Liz’s arm. The man’s name is…Martin (referred to in the script as Martin B) and he claims that Liz is *his* wife. What the fuck is going on here?? With a combination of anger, confusion, and hurt Martin insists, as the entire party watches, that he is indeed the real Martin and that this woman is his wife. Problem is when a bandaged unkempt man with no identification barges into a party and claims a woman who says she doesn’t even know him is his wife, it usually doesn't go over well. That's how security sees it anyway and sends Martin out on his ass.

Martin, alone and, more importantly, without a phone, attempts to go back to that night and figure out what happened. Part of the problem is that his amnesia is fragmenting his memories. He only remembers bits and pieces of the evening. After doing some research, he remembers he had a meeting set up with Nobel Prize winner and head speaker of the biotech conference, Professor Bressler. If he can get to that meeting and convince Professor Bressler he is who he says he is, maybe he can regain his identity and figure out what the hell is going on.

But like a lot of things in Unknown White Male (and like a lot of things should be in a good thriller/drama/mystery) shit don’t go according to plan. When Martin shows up, he finds that Martin B. is already there ahead of him. Martin approaches the problem a little differently this time around, realizing he can bring up e-mails and phone calls that only he and Bressler would know about - once and for all proving that he is the "real" Martin. But wouldn't you know it, as soon as he speaks, Martin B is already a step ahead of him, feeding the professor Martin's lines before they're out of his mouth. Now Martin's mind goes from "What the hell is happening here?" to "Am I going crazy?" I mean, how could this possibly be happening?

If that weren’t bad enough, a healthy dose of paranoia sets in when Martin starts noticing the same people over and over wherever he goes. Is he being followed? Are these men trying to dispose of him? With nowhere to go and his life in danger, Martin must find the driver that saved his life, Gina, and beg her to help him. As an illegal immigrant, she’s limited in what she can do, but she knows what it feels like to be alone, and offers Martin a helping hand.

But since this is a mystery, there’s really only one thing that matters, right? Is the reveal any good? Is all this craziness explained in a satisfying way? I have to say I was pleasantly surprised with the reveal. I did not see it coming. In fact, Unknown White Male is one of the few mysteries where I eventually just gave up trying to figure out the mystery. I honestly had no idea what the ending was going to be. So when the reveal turned out to not only be plausible, but sensible, I was quite impressed.

Unknown White Male is one of those screenplays that’s hard to critique. Because you’re so excited to get to the ending, you’re not as aware of the characters and the story. Looking back, there are definitely some questionable areas in the plot. For instance, if I were accused of not being me, I’d call every single person I’ve ever met in my life to vouch for me. It’s really hard to imagine that in this day and age, with all the technology and instantaneous communication methods we have, that you couldn’t prove you were you in a first world nation. Gadjusek makes a bit of a stab at this problem (The incident is taking place on Thanksgiving Day weekend, therefore nobody is answering their phone. – Yeah…right) but it’s not very convincing. Luckily, as I mentioned, once the story gets going and the pace picks up, you’re not thinking about plot holes.

I’m sure my knowledge of Neeson in the lead colored my opinion of Unknown White Male (if I haven’t made it clear, I love Liam Neeson) but this was a solid script regardless. Definitely worth the read.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: When you’re trying to pull off a high-concept mystery like this one, its’ important to ask what YOU would do in that situation. Don’t use movie logic to guide your character. Ask yourself: “I’m in Germany. My wife doesn’t recognize me. Nobody believes I’m me. What would I do?” Martin calls a couple numbers for the police and when he gets answering machines, he gives up on trying to make any connection back home. That seems a bit unrealistic. So always make sure to approach your character’s decisions with real world logic by putting yourself in their position. Not only will your movie feel more logical, but you’re bound to get some interesting ideas from the practice.